Taco Bell was among the brands that made the biggest improvements in consumer perceptions this year, and other restaurants will have to keep generating positive news to keep up with gains they made during the recession, according to a recent study from YouGov BrandIndex.
Little Caesars commercial: Fishing
An analysis of the top average “Buzz" scores for the first half of 2012 showed heavy advertisers like Subway and Wendy’s making positive impressions with consumers. At the same time, smaller chains with less robust marketing budgets also gained ground by trying new tactics and executing within their restaurants.
“With heavier advertising and new-product promotions, restaurants brought their game up an order of magnitude,” said Ted Marzilli, senior vice president of New York-based BrandIndex. “It will become harder to build on those higher scores.”
BrandIndex calculates its proprietary Buzz score by surveying thousands of American consumers each weekday and asking, “If you’ve heard anything about this brand in the past two weeks, through advertising, news or word-of-mouth, was it positive or negative?” Negative scores are subtracted from positive ones, and a moving average is calculated on a scale of negative 100 to positive 100, with a score of zero denoting a neutral perception of the brand.
Subway wins by a mile
Subway maintained a significantly large lead over its quick-service competitors in average Buzz score, with its 41.7 rating far outpacing No. 2 brand Wendy’s, which had a Buzz score of 28.5. Subway’s constant, consistent advertising helped widen the gap, Marzilli said, but Buzz scores also incorporate more than commercials.
“Scale and sheer amount of advertising are important, but people do or will tune out ads if the campaigns become stale,” Marzilli said. “Subway promotes a particular sub orany given week and keeps things fresh. … Buzz is also about word-of-mouth and personal experience, so if you continue to satisfy and delight customers, that helps with our Buzz scores.”
Papa John’s and Pizza Hut were the No. 3 and No. 4 best-buzzed brands in the first half of 2012, Marzilli said, garnering scores of 26.5 and 25.9, respectively.
He also noted that Chick-fil-A scored the fifth-highest average Buzz score of 20.7 despite a smaller base of stores in the United States — about 1,600 units. A big part of that is Chick-fil-A’s very devoted following among consumers and its reputation for service, which overcomes the fact that the brand advertises far less than the big sandwich and pizza chains, Marzilli said.
“Chick-fil-A’s score is partly based on the way people view them historically,” he said. “One way to get high scores in our survey is to have a whole lot of people familiar with you and rating your brand positively, but the other, more nuanced way is to keep from generating negative ratings.”
Outside the gay and lesbian community — which pointed out through media outlets like The Advocate and Equality Matters that Chick-fil-A’s charitable organization donated nearly $2 million in 2010 to groups regarded as anti-gay — Chick-fil-A produces very few negative responses from surveyed consumers, Marzilli said.
Taco Bell, Little Caesars make big strides
Wendy’s and Pizza Hut showed up on another important list BrandIndex compiled for the first half of 2012: the biggest improvers among quick-service brands for Buzz scores. A 3.4-point improvement from Wendy’s in the first half of 2011 was the third-largest jump, while Pizza Hut had the fifth-largest improvement with a 2-point increase from a year earlier.
Those improvements happened on top of base buzz scores that were much higher than the other top gainers — Taco Bell, Little Caesars and Popeyes — Marzilli noted. He attributed Wendy’s and Pizza Hut’s performances to positive news over the course of the year.
“New news is so important, and over the first several months of the year, the news was that Wendy’s was overtaking Burger King as the No. 2 QSR,” Marzilli said. “I wouldn’t underestimate that kind of free or ‘earned’ advertising. It’s a big deal. Pizza Hut’s improvement might go toward its willingness to experiment, like with sandwiches recently. When there’s something new happening at a brand, people think about it differently.”
The biggest gainer, however, was Taco Bell, which increased its average Buzz score 5.3 points, from 9.3 in the first half of 2011 — during the height of the controversy surrounding a consumer lawsuit against the brand for deceptive marketing practices, which was later dropped — to 14.6 in the first half of this year.
“The combination of the recovery from that lawsuit a year ago and their one huge Doritos Locos Tacos promotion this year really moved the needle and contributed to the improvement,” Marzilli said.
He also noted that Little Caesars had the second-highest jump in average Buzz score, a 4.7-point improvement from 10.0 in 2011 to 14.7 in 2012. The brand launched its first national TV campaign in 15 years in late June, which managed to contribute to its improving buzz, Marzilli speculated. Though it had not run for very long, he thought new advertising was the more significant event to propel Little Caesars’ buzz, even though the chain had been improving value perceptions and word-of-mouth through its long-running $5 Hot-N-Ready pizza promotion.
“You can be delighting customers, but a four-point improvement in Buzz scores would be really hard to achieve unless you were starting from a really low base,” he said, noting that since Little Caesars' score had been positive over the long term, the increase in score could be a combination of both advertising and service.
Also among the biggest improvers, Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen had the fourth-biggest jump in the first half of 2012, rising 2.7 points from 8.6 in the first half of 2011 to 11.3 this year.